Thousands of CAR refugees await aid

Some 10,000 people from the Central African Republic (CAR) - mostly women and children - are stranded in a remote area of southern Chad, having fled renewed fighting in northern CAR, local authorities have told the UN.

Trucks loaded with food aid as well as plastic sheeting and other emergency supplies are to leave for the site on 6 February from the main eastern Chadian town and humanitarian hub of Abéché, according to Annette Rehrl, spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Chad. UNHCR, which is organising the convoy, is sending eight staff.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is sending 82.5 metric tons of food – enough to cover 10,000 people for 15 days, according to Gon Myers of WFP in Chad.

It is not clear how long the 720-km trek will take. Roads are poor and this would be the first UN humanitarian convoy to the area, as it is the first time in several years that CAR refugees have crossed the border at this point, according to Rehrl.

On 28 January a joint UN mission to the area (near the village of Daha some 280km from the nearest town Am Timan) recorded 4,500 people at the site. Most of them had arrived on 16-17 January.

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But the UN deputy humanitarian coordinator in Abéché, Fatma Diouf Samoura, told IRIN the local authorities said there were around 10,000 as of 4 February.

Neither Rehrl nor Samoura could confirm the higher number.

“This is a huge number of people to arrive in one go,” UNHCR’s Rehrl told IRIN referring to the confirmed 4,500. “The local Chadians have been very generous and offered food but we are worried now there is nothing left.” UNHCR said the local food market was empty.

“Very complicated”

The situation is “very complicated”, Rehrl said, because of the distance, road conditions and the lack of information on people’s needs.

“We have received reports of people drinking water from the river untreated,” she said. “We are obviously worried about disease.”

Rehrl said: “Our main concern is that the village of Daha [population about 4,000] is only one kilometre from the border. Given that fighting is continuing, UNHCR will have to determine how to set up longer-term assistance for the refugees, she said.

It took about three hours for the UN team to reach the area from Abéché by helicopter (lent by the UN mission for CAR and Chad - MINURCAT) on 28 January.

UNHCR said in a 30 January statement the refugees appeared to be in good health. Twelve had given birth during the last two weeks of January.

This refugee influx is the largest from CAR into southern Chad in nearly a year. Some 56,000 Central Africans have fled to southern Chad since 2003 and are living in five camps.

Since late 2008, some 100 Central Africans had been arriving monthly, according to UNHCR.